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Which languages is it worth translating into?

In our last post we discussed what materials museums should translate and what’s normally done according to their objectives. There are many reasons why a museum would translate their content. And, depending on the type of materials, they will have to pick several or just 1-2 languages to work with.

Photo by Klaudia Piaskowska on Unsplash
Translating only maps and audio guides

Say a museum decides to only translate their maps and audio guides into foreign languages. In that case, they could pick the most spoken languages in the world. Also it might be good to take into account the most commonly spoken among their visitors (other than English).

The result will probably be that the museum ends up translating into Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian.

Going for a higher level of engagement

But let’s say a museum has decided to really engage their audiences through every material they have available. In this case, there will be several factors that can help decide which languages to choose.

Even if maps and audio guides are translated into several languages or even the museum’s website is, it is not really possible to translate everything into every language, especially when it comes to wall texts and labels, where there are space limitations.

So, how can a museum decide?

Well, they need to take a good look at their audience and location.

Maybe the museum is located in the United States, where Spanish has become the second most spoken language. Even more, maybe it’s in one of the states with the higher number Latinos.

Then, almost certainly, their current or prospective audiences will include a high number of Spanish-speakers. In this case, Spanish should be the language of their choice. Why invest in any other?

languages in museums - Top Latino States in 2014

Why Spanish?

However, being in one of these states is not the only reason to choose Spanish as the language to translate into. The truth is Spanish is right now the one most spoken languages in the world, second only to Mandarin. Not even English has as many native speakers! So, at least in the Western Hemisphere, Spanish is the second most important language.


Being able to speak Spanish is being able to speak the other half of the world!

Tourism alert!

Special circumstances have to be taken into account.

In a recent visit to Bruges, I notices there was a very high number of Spanish-speaking tourists. So much so that walking tours were offered in English and Spanish.

However, Spanish was nowhere to be found among the languages used in museums. Being a bilingual country, Dutch and French were the local languages and everything was translated into English, the lingua franca.

Nevertheless, I would argue that, given the incredible strong Spanish presence —literally everyone in the street was speaking Spanish—, investing in translating their materials wouldn’t really be such a bad idea!

On the contrary, it would reinforce their welcoming of tourists and promote more Spanish-speaking tourism in the area!

So… what should be done?

There are a few things to take into account. For example: what’s the second most spoken language in the region? If none, what’s the language that would benefit the most number of speakers visiting the institution?

Translation is an investment, but the costs would never surpass the benefits it brings!

It is the case of many museums that they have embraced the idea of inclusion and want to become as welcoming as possible.

What do you think? Is this the way to go?

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